WASHINGTON — For four years, according to CIA records, no one from the CIA ever came to the Oval Office to give President George W. Bush a full briefing on what was happening in the dark dungeons of Afghanistan and Eastern Europe. For four years, interrogators stripped and slammed and soaked their prisoners without the president’s being told exactly what was going on.
By the time the CIA director came in April 2006 to give Bush the agency’s first briefing about the interrogation techniques it had been using since 2002, more than three dozen prisoners had already been subjected to them. And when told about one detainee being chained to the ceiling of his cell, clothed in a diaper and forced to urinate and defecate on himself, even a president known for his dead-or-alive swagger “expressed discomfort,” according to a new report released Tuesday.
The report, the declassified executive summary of a larger classified study prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee, has raised questions about what the president knew and what the CIA told him about an interrogation program that has tarred the United States as a nation that tortures. The emails, memos, reports and other documents examined by the Senate committee collectively portray a White House that approved the brutal questioning of suspects but was kept in the dark about many aspects of the program, including whether it really worked.
“The CIA repeatedly provided incomplete and inaccurate information” to the White House, the report concludes. Not only did the agency overstate the effectiveness of the interrogations in obtaining meaningful intelligence that could not be gained elsewhere, the report says, but specific questions posed by White House officials “were not answered truthfully or fully.”
Even to the extent that the president and his advisers understood the program, they kept other top administration figures out of the loop, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. An internal CIA email from July 2003 noted that the White House “is extremely concerned Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.”
Still, the report does not fully answer the question of what Bush or his advisers knew, in part because the committee did not interview them and instead relied on internal documents or transcripts of interviews conducted by the CIA’s own inspector general. In the days leading up to the release of the report, Bush and other veterans of his administration have disputed the notion that they were misled.
In an interview Monday, former Vice President Dick Cheney said he and the president were appropriately informed and signed off on the program.
“It was approved, including the techniques, by the National Security Council,” he said. “It produced results and saved lives.”
He dismissed the inquiry by the Democrat-controlled committee, saying that “they didn’t interview the people who were involved in the program.”
Some former Bush administration officials have privately recommended that the former president and his inner circle use the committee’s report to distance themselves from the program on the premise that they were deceived. But Bush and his closest advisers have rejected that advice and plan to rebut assertions that the CIA manipulated the White House.
In its official response to the committee, also released Tuesday, the CIA rejected the suggestion that it systematically misled the president’s team, saying that “to accomplish this, there would have had to have been a yearslong conspiracy among CIA leaders at all levels” including three successive agency directors.
“We cannot vouch for every individual statement that was made over the years of the program, and we acknowledge that some of those statements were wrong,” the CIA response said. “But the image portrayed in the study of an organization that — on an institutional scale — intentionally misled and routinely resisted oversight from the White House, the Congress, the Department of Justice, and its own OIG” or Office of the Inspector General “simply does not comport with the record.”
The committee report presents a different picture from Bush’s own accounts of the origins of the interrogation program in the spring of 2002 with the capture of Abu Zubaydah, a top al-Qaida figure. In his memoir, “Decision Points,” Bush wrote that he was told that Abu Zubaydah had stopped answering questions but could have information about plots for another catastrophic attack like that on Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush wrote that the CIA drew up a list of interrogation techniques approved by the Justice Department.
“I took a look at the list of techniques,” he wrote. “There were two that I felt went too far, even if they were legal. I directed the CIA not to use them.”
The former president did not identify them in the book. But he said he approved waterboarding and other techniques, knowing that “we would open ourselves up to criticism that America had compromised our moral values.”
A year later, after the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, described as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush wrote that George J. Tenet, the CIA director at the time, asked if he had permission to use the harsh tactics on him. Bush wrote that he thought about a meeting he had had with the widow of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed by Mohammed, and the 3,000 victims of Sept. 11.
“Damn right,” he said he responded to Tenet’s request.
When it came out in 2010, Bush’s book confused some in the CIA, who said they did not think the president had ever been briefed on specific interrogation techniques. John Rizzo, a former CIA general counsel, wrote in his own book published this year that he was not aware of Bush being briefed on specific techniques and said that Tenet shared that recollection.
But Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser in his first term, has written about Bush being briefed on the program. Another senior White House official from that era said in an interview this year that he too recalled the president being briefed, although he did not recall by whom.
Bill Harlow, a former CIA spokesman who helped Tenet write his own memoir, checked with the former director in response to a request this year and said that Tenet “said that while he did not personally brief the president on the EITs,” or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “as the program was being established he has no doubt that either Condi or Steve Hadley did at the time.” Stephen J. Hadley was Rice’s successor as national security adviser.
Some other accounts have suggested that the president’s staff deliberately shielded him from more graphic descriptions of the interrogations. According to “500 Days” by Kurt Eichenwald, Alberto R. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, took Tenet’s request to use harsh techniques on Abu Zubaydah to the president. When Bush asked what kind of techniques, Gonzales replied, according to the book, “Mr. President, I think for your own protection, you don’t need to know the details of what’s going on here.” Bush agreed, according to the book, saying, “All right. Just make sure that these things are lawful.”
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, another former CIA director, said in a previous interview that Bush was also not told the specific countries where the agency eventually established secret prisons to interrogate the most wanted suspects. The Senate report confirms that, saying that after Bush approved transferring Abu Zubaydah to one such prison, that was the last time he or Cheney were told which countries were being used for the program “as a matter of White House policy to avoid inadvertent disclosures of the location of the CIA detention sites.”
The documents reviewed by the Senate committee suggest some hesitation on Rice’s part. In July 2002, as the CIA and Justice Department were determining which techniques were legal, she requested a delay until the attorney general could weigh in and asked the CIA to provide “specific detail on its proposed interrogation techniques” and why they would not cause lasting and irreparable harm.
The CIA told Rice that “countless more Americans may die unless we can persuade A.Z. to tell us” what he knows. Rice replied that given that imperative, she would not object as long as the Justice Department called the interrogations legal, which the department did. A few days later, Rice’s legal adviser told Tenet’s chief of staff that the CIA had approval to use the techniques but “there would be no briefing of the president on this matter,” the Senate report says.
A separate email from Rizzo said the president would be briefed as part of a regular annual covert action review “by Rice or VP or Counsel to the President or some combination thereof” but “will not apparently get into the details of the techniques themselves.”
From time to time, some urged that Bush be made more fully aware of what was happening. A May 2004 review by the CIA’s inspector general recommended that Tenet brief the president on the interrogation techniques “and the fact that detainees have died.” Tenet responded by saying he would “determine whether and to what extent the president requires a briefing on the program.”
Two years later, in an April 6, 2006, letter to Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, then the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, the CIA inspector general reported that Tenet, who had by then stepped down, and Porter Goss, his replacement, “both advised me that they had made requests to brief the president.”
Goss arrived at the White House two days later for the briefing. By that point, 38 of the 39 detainees who would eventually be interrogated under the torture program had already been subjected to the techniques. The Senate report asserts that the CIA had repeatedly exaggerated the results of those interrogations.
Whether Bush’s reported “discomfort” at that point — about the detainee chained to the ceiling and clothed in a diaper — resulted in a change in policy is not clear. But by then the program was already being scaled back. Waterboarding had been halted in 2003, and by the time Goss briefed Bush, only one country still had a secret CIA prison in operation.
Given increasing public disclosure and under pressure from Congress, including Republicans like Sen. John McCain, who was denouncing torture, Bush decided to finally publicly acknowledge the program. In September 2006, he ordered the last of the CIA prisons shut and the remaining detainees transferred to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they would be publicly accounted.
But in his speech announcing those moves, Bush mentioned no discomfort and offered no regrets. In passages cleared by the CIA, he defended the program and argued that the interrogations had prevented major terrorist attacks. The Senate report Tuesday concludes that was not true and that Bush had once again been misinformed.